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CHAPTER XV
Mildred Caniper was wearing her deaf expression when they went into the house, and getting supper ready as a form of reproof. John was another of her failures. He had chosen work she despised for him, and now, though it was impossible to despise Lily Brent, it was impossible not to disapprove of such a marriage for a Caniper. But when she was helpless, Mrs. Caniper had learnt to preserve her pride in suavity, and as they sat down to supper she remarked that she would call on Lily Brent tomorrow.

"How funny!" Helen said at once.

Miriam darted a look meant to warn Helen that Notya was in no mood for controversy, and John frowned in readiness to take offence.

"Why funny?" he growled.

"I was just wondering if Notya would put on a hat and gloves to do it." She turned to Mildred Caniper. "Will you?"

"I'm afraid I have not considered such a detail."

"None of us," Helen went on blandly, "has ever put on a hat to go to the farm. I should hate any of us to do it. Notya, you can't."

"You forget," Mildred Caniper said in her coldest tones, "that I have not been accustomed to going there."

"Well, do notice Lily's primroses," Helen said pleasantly. "They're like sunshine, and she's like—"

"No, please," John begged.

"I wonder why Rupert has not come to supper," Mildred Caniper said, changing the subject, and Helen wondered pityingly why one who had known unhappiness should not be eager to spare others.

"But," Miriam began, her interest overcoming dread of her stepmother's prejudices, "we shall have to wear hats for John's wedding. I shall have a new one and a new dress, a dusky blue, I think, with a sheen on it."

"Did you mention my wedding?" John asked politely.

"Yes. And a peacock's feather in my hat. No, that's unlucky, but so beautiful."

"Nothing beautiful," Helen said, "can be unlucky."

"I wouldn't risk it. But what can I have?"

"For my wedding," John announced, "you'll have nothing, unless you want to sit alone in the garden in your new clothes. You're not going to be present at the ceremony. Good Lord! I'll have Rupert and Daniel for witnesses, and we'll come home in time to do the milking, but there'll be no show. It would make me sick."

"Not even a party?"

"What the—what on earth should we have a party for?"

"For fun, of course. Daniel and Zebedee and us." She leaned towards him. "And George, John, just to show that all's forgiven!" To see if she had dared too much, she cast a glance at Mildred Caniper, but that lady sat in the stillness of determined indifference.

"Not one of you!" John said. "It's our wedding, and we're going to do what we like with it."

"But when you're going to be happy—as I suppose you think you are—you ought to let other people join in. Here's a chance of a little fun—"

"There's nothing funny about being married," Helen said in her deep tones.

"Depends who—whom—you're marrying, doesn't it?" Miriam asked, and looking at Mildred Caniper once more, she found that she need not be afraid, for though the expression was the same, its effect was different. Notya looked as though she could not rouse her energies to active disapproval; as though she would never say her rare, amusing things again, and Miriam was reminded of the turnip lanterns they had made in their youth—hollowness and flickering light within.

The succeeding days encouraged that reminder, for something had gone from Mildred Caniper and left her stubbornly frail in mind and body. Rupert believed that hope had died in her but the Canipers did not speak of the change which was plain to all of them. She was a presence of flesh and blood, and she would always be a presence, for she had that power, but she approached Mr. Pinderwell in their thoughts, and they began to use towards her the kind of tenderness they felt for him. Sometimes she became aware of it and let out an irony with a sharpness which sent Helen about the house more gaily and persuaded her that Notya would be better when summer came, for surely no one could resist the sun.

John's soft heart forgave his stepmother's coldness towards his marriage and his bride, and prompted him to a generous suggestion. He made it shyly and earnestly one night in the drawing-room where Mildred Caniper sat under the picture of Mr. Pinderwell's lady.

"Notya," he began, "we want you to come to our wedding, too. Just you and Rupert and Daniel. Will you?"

She looked faintly amused, yet, the next moment, he had a fear that she was going to cry. "Thank you, John."

"We both want you," he said awkwardly, and went nearer.

"I'm glad you have asked me, but I won't come. I'm afraid I should only spoil it. I do spoil things." She smiled at him and looked at the hands on her knee. "It seems to me that that's what I do best."

He did not know what to say and, having made inarticulate noises in his throat, he went quickly to the schoolroom.

"Go to Notya, some one, and make her angry. She's being miserable in the drawing-room. Tell her you've broken something!"

"I won't," Miriam said. "I've had too much of that, and I'm going to enjoy the unwonted peace. You go, Helen."

"Leave her alone," Rupert advised. "You won't cure Notya's unhappiness so easily as that."

"When the summer comes—" Helen began, cheerfully deceiving herself, and John interrupted.

"Summer is here already. It's June next week."

He was married in his own way on the first day of that month, and Miriam uttered no more regrets. She was comparatively contented with the present. Mildred Caniper seldom thwarted her, and she knew that every day George Halkett rode or walked where he might see her, and her memory of that splendid summer was to be one of sunlight blotted with the shapes of man and horse moving across the moor. George was not always successful in his search, for she knew that he would pall as a daily dish, but on Sundays if Daniel would not be beguiled, and if it was not worth while to tease Helen through Zebedee, she seldom failed to make her light secret way to the larch-wood where he waited.

Her excitement, when she felt any, was only sexual because the danger she sought and the power she wielded were of that kind, and she was chiefly conscious of light-hearted enjoyment and the new experience of an understanding with the moor. Secrecy quickened her perceptions and she found that nature deliberately helped her, but whether for its own purposes or hers she could not tell. The earth which had once been her enemy now seemed to be her friend, and where she had seen monotony she discovered delicate differences of hour and mood. If she needed shelter, the hollows deepened themselves at her approach, shadows grew darker and the moor lifted itself to hide her. She seemed to take a friend on all her journeys, but she was not quite happy in its company. It was a silent, scheming friend and she was not sure of it; there were times when she suspected laughter at which she would grow defiant and then, pretending that she went openly in search of pleasure, she sang and whistled loudly on her way.

There was an evening when that sound was answered by the noise of hoofs behind her, the music of a chinking bridle, the creaking of leather and the hard breathing of a horse. She did not turn as George drew rein beside her and said "Good-evening," in his half sulky tones. She had her hands behind her back and she looked at the sky.

"'Sunset and evening star,'" she said solemnly, "'and one clear call for me.' Do you know those beautiful words, George?"

He did not answer. She could hear him fidgeting with whip and reins, but she gazed upward still.

"I'm sorry I can't recite the rest. I have forgotten it, but if you will promise to read it, I'll lend you a copy. On Sunday evenings you ought to sit at home and improve your mind."

He gave a laugh like a cough. "I don't care about my mind," he said, and he touched the horse with his heel so that she had to move aside. He saw warm anger chase the pious expression from her face.

"Ah!" she cried, "that is the kind of thing you do! You're rough! You make me hate you! Why!" her voice fell from its height, "that's a new horse!" Her hands were busy on neck and nose. "I like him. What is he called?"

Halkett was looking at her with an eagerness through which her words could hardly pierce. She was wonderful to watch, soft as a kitten, swift as a bird.

"What do you call him, George?" she said again, and tapped his boot.

"'Charlie'—this one."

She laughed. "You choose dull names. Is he as wicked as Daisy?"

"Nothing like."

"Why did you get him, then?"

"I want him for hard work."

"I believe you're lazy. If you don't walk you'll get fat. You're the kind of man that does."

"Perhaps, but that's a long way off. Riding is hard work enough and my father was a fine man up to sixty."

A thin shock of fear ran through her at the remembrance of old Halkett's ruined shape. "I was always frightened of him," she said in a small voice, and she looked at George as though she asked for reassurance. There was a cold grey light on the moor; darkness was not far off and it held a chill wind in leash.

"Do you wish he wasn't dead?" she whispered.

He lifted his shoulders and pursed his mouth. "No," he said.

"Are you lonely in that house?"

"There's Mrs. Biggs, you know," he said with a sneer.

"Yes, I know," she murmured doubtfully, and drew closer.

"So you don't think she's enough for me?"

"Of course I don't. That's why I'm so kind to you. She couldn't be listening to us, could she? Everything seems to be listening."

"So you're kind to me, are you?"

"Yes," she said, raising her eyebrows and nodding her head, until she looked like a dark poppy in a wind.

"And when I saw you on the road the other day you wouldn't look at me. That's the second time."

"I did."

"As if I'd been a sheep."

"Oh!" Laughter bubbled in her. "You did look rather like one. I was occupied in thinking deeply, seriously, intently—"

"That's no excuse."

"My good George, I shouldn't think of excusing myself to you. I chose to ignore you and I shall probably ignore you again."

"Two can play at that game."

"Well, dear me, I shan't mind."

He bent in the saddle, and she did not like the polished whiteness of his eyeballs. His voice was very low and heavy. "You think you can go on making a mock of me for ever."

She started back. "No, George, no."

"You do, by God!" He lifted his whip to shake it in the face of heaven.

"Oh, don't, George, please! I can't stay"—she crept nearer—"if you go on like that. What have I done? It's you who treat me badly. Won't you be nice? Tell me about something." She put her face against the horse's neck. "Tell me about riding. It must be beautiful in the dark. Isn't it dangerous? Dare you gallop?"

"Well, we do."

"Such lots of rabbit-holes."

"What does it matter?"

"Oh, dear, you're very cross."

"I can't help it," he said like an unhappy child. "I can't help it." And he put his hand to his head with an uncertain movement.

"Oh." With a practical air she sought for an impersonal topic. "Tell me about Paris."

"Paris." There was no need for him to speak above a murmur. "I want to take you there."

"Do you?"

He leant lower. "Will you come?"

Her eyes moved under his, but they did not turn aside. "I think I'm going there with some one else," she said softly, and before her vision of this eager lover there popped a spruce picture of Uncle Alfred.

"That isn't true," Halkett said, but despair was in his voice.

She was angered instantly. "I beg your pardon?"

"It isn't true," he said again.

"Very well," she said, and she began to walk away, but he called after her vehemently, bitterly, "Because I won't let you go!"

She laughed at that and came back to her place, to say indulgently, "How silly you are! I'm only going with an aged uncle!"

"But he's not the man to take you there."

"No."

"Come with me now."

"Shall I?"

"Get up beside me and I'll carry you away."

She was held by his trouble, but she spoke lightly. "Could he swim with us both across the Channel? No, I don't think I want to come tonight. Some day—"

"When?"

"Oh," she said on a high note, "perhaps when I'm very tired of things."

"You're tired already."

"Not so much as that. And we're talking nonsense, and I must go."

"Not yet."

"I must. It's nearly time for bed, and I'm not sure that it's polite of you to sit on that horse while I stand here."

"Come up and you'll see how well he goes."

"He wouldn't bear us both."

"Pooh! You're a feather."

"Oh, I couldn't. Wouldn't he jump?"

"He'd better try!"

"Now, don't be cruel to him."

"What do you know about it? I've ridden since I could walk."

"Lucky you!"

"I'll teach you."

"Could you?"

"Give me a chance."

"Here's one! No, no, I didn't mean it," she cried as he dismounted and lifted her to the saddle. "Oh, I feel so high up. Don't move him till I get used to it. I'm not safe on this saddle. Put me a little further on, George. That's further forward! I'm nearly on his neck. No, I don't think I like it. Take me down."

"Keep still." The words were almost threatening in the gloom. "Sit steady. I'm coming up."

"No, don't. I shall fall off!"

But already he was behind her, holding her closely with one arm. "There! He's quiet enough. I couldn't do this with Daisy. And he's sure-footed. He was bred on the moor." He set the horse trotting gently. "He goes well, doesn't he?"

"Yes."

"Don't you like it?"

"Ye-es."

"What's the matter?"

"There isn't room enough," she said, and moved her shoulders.

He spoke in her ear. "If I don't hold you, you'll fall off. Here's a smooth bit coming. Now, lad, show us what you can do and remember what you're carrying!"

The saddle creaked and the bit jangled and George's arm tightened round her. Though she did not like his nearness, she leaned closer for safety, and he and the horse seemed to be one animal, strong and swift and merciless. Once or twice she gasped, "Please, George, not quite so fast," but the centaur paid no heed. She shut her eyes because she did not like to see the darkness sliding under them as they passed, and they seemed to be galloping into a blackness that was empty and unending. Her hands clutched the arm that fenced her breasts: her breath came quickly, exhilaration was mixed with fear, and now she was part of the joint body that carried her and held her.

She hardly knew when the pace had slackened; she was benumbed with new sensations, darkness, speed and strength. She had forgotten that this was a man she leaned against. Then the horse stood still and she felt Halkett's face near hers, his breath on her cheeks, a new pressure of his arm and, unable to endure this different nearness, she gave his binding hand a sharp blow with her knuckles, jerked her head backwards against his and escaped his grasp; but she had to fall to do it, and from the ground she heard his chuckle as he looked down at her.

At that moment she would have killed him gladly; she felt her body soiled by his, but her mind was curiously untouched. It knew no disgust for his desire nor for her folly, and while she hated him for sitting there and laughing at her fall, this was still a game she loved and meant to play. In the heather she sat and glowered at him, but now she could hardly see his face.

"That was a silly thing to do," she heard him say. "You might easily have been kicked. What did you do it for?"

She would not own her knowledge of his real offence, and she muttered angrily, "Galloping like that—"

"Didn't you like it? He's as steady as a rock."

"How could I know that?"

"And I thought you had some pluck."

"I have. I sat quite still."

Again he laughed. "I made you."

"Oh," she burst out. "I'll never trust you again."

"You would if you knew—if you knew—but never mind. I wanted to see you on a horse. You shall have him to yourself next time. I'll get a side saddle."

"I don't want one," she said.

"Oh, yes, you do. Let me help you up. Say you forgive me."

With her hand in his she murmured, "But you are always doing something. And my head aches."

"Does it? I'm sorry. What made it ache?"

"It—I—I bumped myself when I fell."

"Poor little head! It was silly of you, wasn't it? Let me put you on his back again, and I'll walk you slowly home."

He was faithful to his word, letting her go without a pressure of the hand, and she crept into the house with the uneasy conviction that Helen was right, that George wanted the chance he had never had, and her own responsibility was black over her bed as she tried to sleep. Turning from side to side and at last sitting up with a jerk, she decided to evade responsibility by evading George, and with that resolution she heaved a deep sigh at the prospect of her young life despoiled by duty.


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